As News Media Sinks To New Ethics Lows, Some Friendly—And Urgent— Advice

One of many news story warning labels devised by Tom Scott (

The profession of journalism has now sunk to a point of incompetence and untrustworthiness that constitutes a serious threat, not only to itself, but also to the United States, which must have honest and reliable news sources to function and thrive. As currently constructed, the profession of journalism does not possess the tools or the will to address its crisis. Two recent examples should suffice.

The Saturday before Joe Paterno died, a tweet from a Penn State student-run website erroneously announced that Paterno was already dead. The tweet was immediately picked up by CBS Sports, and subsequently by the news web sites The Daily Beast and the Huffington Post. Howard Kurtz, supposedly the preeminent  media ethics watchdog, re-tweeted the false news himself. Many other journalists did the same. But it was all based on a hoax.  Paterno was still alive.

One of the oldest and most essential rules of reporting is to always, always, always—no exceptions—check the source of any story, and then confirm a second, independent source before running it. This was a sound principle before  electronic media made it possible for rumors and hoaxes to travel around the world at the speed of thought. That principle is dead. Journalists and editors literally don’t care; they would rather be sorry than last. MSNBC’s partisan flacks recently slammed Mitt Romney for adopting a KKK slogan, based solely on the incorrect assertion and botched quotation of a left-wing website. The story could have been checked and disproved in five minutes, but MSNBC, hungry as always for any justification to smear a Republican, put it on the air anyway. The network apologized, but never mind…the story is still out there. At a time when editors must exercise more professional care and vigilance to ensure that readers and viewers get facts rather than falsehoods, they are exercising less, and too often none at all.

Then, last week, the news agency Reuters released an exposé on U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), widely regarded as a strong contender to be a running mate for whomever emerges as the GOP presidential nominee. Reporter David Adams, a supposedly professional journalist, in a story that was presumably reviewed by competent editors, wrote that…

  • As Senator, Rubio voted against Sonia Sotomayor, Obama’s Hispanic Supreme Court nominee….even though Rubio wasn’t yet in the Senate.
  • As Senator, Rubio opposed Obama’s health care reform legislation. Again, Rubio hadn’t been elected at the time.
  • Rubio had his home “appraised for $735,000 and took out a second mortgage for $135,000.” It wasn’t a second mortgage. It was a home equity loan.
  • “In 2008, despite earning a declared $400,000 – including his $300,000 salary from the Miami law firm Broad and Cassel – Rubio failed to make a payment on his home for several months.”  This is completely false, according to records.

There were other errors as well. (The article has now been corrected.) How can this kind of incompetent and reckless reporting occur and be tolerated at a major news agency? If the profession were medicine, this would be the equivalent of a major hospital sending in a witch doctor to operate on a heart patient. If the profession were law, this would be the equivalent of Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), the hapless defense attorney in “Ghostbusters 2,” making this final summation to the judge:

“Your Honor, ladies and gentleman of the audience, I don’t think it’s fair to call my clients frauds. Sure, the blackout was a big problem for everybody. I was trapped in an elevator for two hours and I had to make the whole time. But I don’t blame them. Because one time, I turned into a dog and they helped me. Thank you.

Unprofessional and outrageous conduct can occur regularly in journalism because, unlike medicine and law, journalism has no accountability, no enforcement or accepted standards of ethical conduct and professionalism. Oh, journalists still give lip service to their traditional ethical standards, but when it is convenient to ignore them, they are ignored. Unethical journalism is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

The news media has allowed itself to embrace a travesty of its mission, in which no reporter, no newspaper, no broadcast or cable news program, no anchorperson and no news website is reliable or trustworthy. That is a crisis for democracy, and it has to be recognized, accepted by the industry and addressed—by the industry. Now. It will only get worse. Each new low-point in newsmedia integrity is surpassed with accelerating speed. There is no integrity in journalism, or if there is, nobody, including me, will believe it.

My advice to the news media is that it must establish an independent,  non-profit, non-partisan governing body that critically reviews the output of publications, broadcasts, websites and the reporters, correspondents, editors and producers. The organization must have the power to rate news media according to professionalism, accuracy, fairness, competence, objectivity, and trustworthiness. It must have the power to place sanctions on journalists and their employers, designating them as having failed to meet minimal standards of professional ethics. The organization must have the power to certify news media like hospitals, colleges and graduate schools are certified, and to place offending organizations on probation, warning the public that a journalist or media source is currently to be regarded as untrustworthy.

When a Reuters allows a story like the one written by Adams to be published, the organization should pay a steep price. Apologies are cheap. When irresponsible journalism has long-term consequences, people will get fired, editors will be replaced,  systems will be tightened and professionalism will improve. As it stands today, even blatant violations of ethics have minimal consequences for the news media, because there are no ethical alternatives for the public to turn to.

That is intolerable, and dangerous. The lack of trustworthy and professional news media creates public fear and paranoia about the rest of America’s institutions, because it suspects, with good reason, that the truth is being hidden and distorted. Journalists are in denial, but the truth of their own ethical collapse has become impossible to deny. My advice to them, friendly but urgent, is to fix it.

It can be fixed, and it must be fixed. America needs journalism it can trust, and as of January 28, 2012, there isn’t any.

11 thoughts on “As News Media Sinks To New Ethics Lows, Some Friendly—And Urgent— Advice

    • I really do think the answer is no. The new media has no standards to speak of, and the old media doesn’t think it can compete being slowed down by traditional ethical precepts. The people in charge of the business, the money guys, don’t care about ethics; they care about profits, survival, and secondarily, influence and power. Doing it right is way down the list. Ethics is what journalists will do if it doesn’t interfere with the story, cost money or cause them to get flack for being behind everyone else.

      The profession never attracted the top minds, but it used to attract responsible idealists who saw their First Amendment roles as crucial. Ever since Watergate, that impulse began to morph into inflated ambitions of importance and influence, book deals and TV contracts. Reporters weren’t supposed to be celebrities, Now they all want columns, panel shows and to be able to mold the world to their ideologies—and few of them have a knowledge of policy and world affairs that is more more than an inch deep. It’s not getting better until bad journalism starts putting companies out of business. Right now, only illegal journalism does, and that’s only if you’re caught—as with News of the World..

      • The profession never attracted the top minds, but it used to attract responsible idealists who saw their First Amendment roles as crucial. Ever since Watergate, that impulse began to morph into inflated ambitions of importance and influence, book deals and TV contracts.

        Whqat about Watergate changed the media? It would be tragic is Watergate corrupted the media more than it corrupted the presidency.

  1. The minute the news was no longer reported and became decided for us was the minute we lost all integrity and trust in the news. The news has turned into entertainment.

  2. Reuter’s forgot to mention that Rubio created the “Star Wars” and “COPS” spoof, “TROOPS”. Can I get my journalism degree, now?

    The idea of such an oversight board for journalism can’t work. Partisanship is too ingrained, to the point that the journalists think it is the point. They are partisan PR and propaganda, not journalists. They all have to have a cause, even if that cause is their own ego, fame, and bank account.

  3. Pingback: As News Media Sinks To New Ethics Lows, Some Friendly—And … « Ethics Find

  4. Pingback: As News Media Sinks To New Ethics Lows, Some Friendly—And … |

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